Saturday, July 15, 2017

Amazigh Festival Tackles Big Questions

There is a fascinating array of academic experts participating in the International Festival of Amazigh Culture and today they showed that they weren't backing away from contentious issues
Michael Willis identified the antagonism between Islamists and Amazigh movement

The day started with an address by Maatti Kabbal from the l’Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. His topic was "A Critique of Extreme Reason."

This was followed by a panel discussion on Amazigh Culture in North Africa, with Jilali Saib from the University of Mohammed V in Rabat, Amazigh activist Meryam Demnati from the Observatory of Amazigh Rights in Rabat., Madina Touré from Nouakchot University in Mauritania and Slimane Douih from the Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University in Fez.

"Don't forget our African heritage"- Slimane Douih 

Slimane Douih, who comes from the area of the Moroccan Sahara, made the point that while much of the discussion centres around the common belief that majority of North Africa's population is believed to be Amazigh in origin, but, due to Arabisation most ethnic Amazigh identify as Arabised Amazigh. Douih challenged this by pointing out that much of the rock art and cave paintings point to a very strong African element. He made the point that while much of Amazigh culture and history is now recognised, that the African component is totally ignored. He also pointed out that his study of the Saharan Hassani language is not an Arabic language but rather linked to Amazigh. Likewise social customs and dance, show a particularly strong African rather than Arabic influence.

After a coffee break and much discussion, came a presentation by Michael Willis (Oxford University) on the topic; Enemies Allies or Competitors? Islamist-Amazigh Movement Relations in Morocco and Algeria. Willis started by saying that following the arrival of the Arabs in the 7th century, there has been a strong belief that Morocco and Algeria are Arab cultures. He pointed out that Islamists and Amazigh view each other as a threat. From the Islamist perspective pluralism is a threat to Islam and that, at root, the movement is post-colonial secularism.

On the other hand, the Amazigh movement sees a different kind of colonialism; saying that Arabisation, in the form of dress, customs and language, is being promoted by various Arab countries outside the Maghreb.

Willis says, that while there is antagonism between the two groups, there have been moves to build bridges. Much of this has come from the state who have a desire to use the Amazigh movement as a bulwark against Islamism. In the process, he claims, many Amazigh activists have been coopted by state institutions. During the recent tensions in the Riff region there was a coming together of the Islamists and Amazigh, though, as Willis points out, the Hirak movement is a social one rather that simply Amazigh or Islamist.

Long time Amazigh Activist Meryam Demnati

Speaking with The View From Fez, Meryam Demnati agreed and pointed out that it was a common problem with the mass media who see things in simplistic terms.

One irony Willis highlighted, was that when Morocco's Islamist PJD party came to power it was presented with the task of implementing the Amazigh policies enshrined in the new constitution - policies that they had been fighting against.

The conference winds up tomorrow after another full day of discussion. It is very much worth attending.


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